In Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar—an unnerving drama about the exploitation and manipulation of truth to appease a certain sentiment—Irrfan Khan is exceptional. It’s perhaps his finest turn in a long, long list of great performances.
Irrfan plays Ashwin Kumar, the Joint Director of the fictional CDI (modelled, obviously on the CBI), who’s suspended after his colleague leaks a video to their senior about him torturing a potential witness who could change the course of the case.
Irrfan gets into a fight with the younger man and in the next scene, he’s seen, at first, lurking aimlessly on the streets of Delhi, before deciding to pay an unannounced visit to his ex-wife, played by Tabu.
It’s here that Irrfan’s true acting range is displayed to us. Kumar’s exhaustion, his teetering at the edge, his longing for a time when he once felt loved and belonging, everything is summed up in his piercing expression when he tells her, “Mat jaane do mujhe,” to a tense Tabu, the line carrying a duality that references both, the person and his profession.
The way Tabu reacts: a hesitant pause as if he’s asking her to not let him go (he’s not, but maybe he also is?) is proof of how well she responds to him, a reminder, if we needed it, of how the actors, who’d collaborated several times in the past, just fed off each other’s extraordinary talents.
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But it isn’t just Talvar, a generally great film directed by Meghna and written by Vishal Bhardwaj. Even lesser films were made immensely watchable, and enjoyable, because of Irrfan’s sheer presence.
In outrightly terrible fare, like Anees Bazmee’s Thank You, Irrfan is a hoot as a womaniser. He seems aware of the trite nonsense he’s found himself in, delivering a wink-to-the-camera kind of a meta performance. In Nishikant Kamath’s Madaari, a not-great-overall but underrated-in-parts film about a man avenging bureaucratic corruption, Irrfan is a powerhouse, his outsized determination overpowering the general cynicism around government red-tapism in a way that makes the viewer root for his lofty efforts.
But perhaps he had the most fun with Himesh Reshammiya’s The Xpose, a film that aspired to emulate the aesthetic and style of The Great Gatsby but didn’t quite have the budget for Moët and Chandon. Far from flaunting champagne, you had actors wearing clothes that looked like they were sourced from a supplier whose primary business comes from school annual day celebrations.
In The Killer, Irrfan, plays, well, a ‘killer’, who pops up at a party, catching a young couple making out, before shooting them in cold blood, lol. The body of the man is thrown from the 10th floor and lands on a cab, driven by Emraan Hashmi. Irrfan comes down and it’s utterly satisfying to watch him scold, well, the dead body for falling on a car, telling the cabbie, “Death kabhi knock kar ke nahi aati,” before telling him, “Goli khaayega ya dinner?”
He recreated the same kind of potboiler dialoguebaazi, albeit, in his own unique way, in Sanjay Gupta’s Jazbaa, a film that’s a must-watch if you hold ironic movie viewing parties. A cool, nonchalant cop suspended by the police force, Irrfan played Yohan, who only spoke in telecom metaphors.
“Rishton mein bharosa aur mobile mein network na ho, to log game khelne lagte hain,” made its way into many memes but Irrfan, like he often did in films irrespective of their quality, slipped seamlessly into the part, never hamming or going over the top. Instead, he dropped lines with the casual nonchalance of a man with nothing to lose. Jazbaa is extremely watchable because there’s Irrfan in it and Irrfan is never not watchable.
That he had the self-awareness of how campy Bollywood was evidenced in the AIB: Every Bollywood Party Song where Khan played up the stereotype of a ‘Bollywood star’ in a nightclub surrounded by ‘bros and babes.’
Billu, Dil Kabbadi, Deadline: Sirf 24 Ghante, even a Knock Out, are just some other instances where the joy of watching Irrfan act was worth a lot more than suffering through the film that contained these performances. It felt that when Irrfan took up these roles—parts he could have sleep-walked through—he did so with sincerity and goodwill, never judgement or condescension.
After all, how many actors could say that they acted in The Namesake and a cheap copy of Collateral, unimaginatively titled The Killer, in the same year?
Only Irrfan Khan.